A council tax isn't a wealth tax

How should the government settle the inequalities in property wealth?

Very important, this one: the council tax isn't a wealth tax. That's a claim I've seen repeated around the place with relative frequency recently, most notably in Polly Toynbee's Guardian column today. She writes:

Wealth taxes only deliver 5.9% of revenues, mostly in council tax (which often falls on renters, not owners). Inheritance tax brings in just 0.5%, only paid by 3% of estates, halved since Labour unwisely doubled couples' exemption: it's the most avoided of all.

As she says, the incidence of council tax falls on the occupier, not the owner. If you have very little wealth but high income, you may rent a Band-H house and end up paying the same council tax as someone with very high wealth and very low income.

In practice, then, council tax is a tax on residency, not on property wealth and certainly not on wealth overall. (Legally, it's not quite that simple. A lease is still a form of ownership, so it's not quite the case that non-owners are taxed.)

It may be the case that, at the top end, that doesn't matter. If we were to introduce the "mansion tax" by adding a new band on top of council tax for properties over £2m, for instance, there would be few renters hit. But even then, there would still be some.

The distinction is important to make, because as the movement for a true mansion tax—or better still, a land value tax—grows, the opposition will try to claim that what we already have is good enough. It isn't.

The inequalities in property wealth are astronomical. A chart put together by researcher Andy Whightman makes that astoundingly clear. He writes:

This data was obtained from the Office of National Statistics by Faiza Shaheen of the New Economics Foundation and shows the average net property wealth for each 1% of the income distribution. The top 1% of the population has net property wealth of £15,040,000 whilst the bottom 33% has nothing. The top 1% own more net property wealth than the rest of the 99% combined.

But there's another way the government could take advantage of the discrepancies in property wealth to earn some income, settle the housing market and reduce inequality. Michael Darrington, former CEO of Greggs, writing in the Telegraph today, suggests a £100bn housebuilding programme funded by quantitative easing. But in focusing on the revenue source, he's missed the most impressive part of his plan, because he also suggests that:

While there are plenty of suitable sites for building already available, a programme on the scale I envisage would clearly require more.

One way to achieve this would be through the compulsory purchase of farmland at a sensible multiple of its agricultural value—say three or four times—which would give farmers a very good profit but not the lottery-winning values currently ascribed to development land.

But rather than the expensive and illiberal procedure of compulsory purchase, there's a more radical option available. As Darrington implies, land with planning permission is worth more than land without—a lot more. Frequently well over 20 times as much, in fact. And the institution with the power to convert land without planning permission into land with planning permission is the same one trying desperately to build houses.

In other words, an entire housebuilding program could probably be funded on the difference between the purchase price of agricultural land and the sale price of land with planning permission.

Councils could buy up agricultural land, award themselves planning permission, build houses, and sell some off while keeping the rest for social housing. In fact, such is demand for land with planning permission, they wouldn't even need to build them; they could just sell the land without houses, but insist that part of the sale price be that some houses built on the land be used for social housing.

In fact, councils wouldn't even need to buy the land. They could just grant planning permission with the same requirements on more land than they have been now. Because the real bottleneck is there, and not really with housebuilding at all.

Former council houses, refurbished and made energy-efficient. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder